Michael J. Fox on influencing Chris Martin, death wishes, and incurable optimism in new doc Still
Over the six months Davis Guggenheim spoke with Michael J. Fox for what would become his latest documentary, the actor had only one request: no violins.
"They're overly schmaltzy," the Back to the Future star tells EW. Neither Oscar winner knew what shape the film would take when they started recording their conservations, but both agreed the finished product would be devoid of pity for Fox's Parkinson's diagnosis.
"We're not going to put him in a box as someone with a handicap," adds Guggenheim. "We're not going to say, 'Oh, poor Michael.' And you see that from the beginning of the movie. We just immediately subvert that expectation."
Instead, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie offers a message of hope, perseverance, and the power of gratitude. "I watch how Michael's dealt with [his diagnosis], and that's given me a path forward," says Guggenheim. "It could be Parkinson's, it could be cancer, it could be work, it could be anything. But that's the appeal to me; it's a universal story. The pitch was: What happens when an incurable optimist confronts an incurable disease?'"
We find the answer in the duo's freewheeling conversations about Fox's life, from his childhood as an undersized, hyperactive Canadian kid to becoming the "boy prince of Hollywood" to watching helplessly as Parkinson's nearly destroyed everything before his 30th birthday. With help from his wife, Tracy Pollan, Fox managed to crawl back from rock bottom, curb his reckless behavior, and ultimately channel his greatest challenge into a beacon of hope for millions via his research foundation.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute Michael J. Fox in the documentary 'Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie'
Told almost entirely through Guggenheim's sitdowns with Fox, Still comes to life via cleverly selected clips from Fox's filmography that, with the help of some reenactments, give the effect of watching home videos from Fox's real life.
Below, Guggenheim and Fox speak with EW about why they wanted to make the documentary, what they learned about themselves, and why the film is about more than Parkinson's.
EW can also exclusively announce that Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie will premiere in select theaters in North America and the U.K. and stream globally on Apple TV+ on May 12, 2023.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The way the documentary is cut, we really get a sense of just how beautifully you moved in your films. Not every actor has that. I wonder, just putting it to you plainly, how do you feel when you see this footage now?
MICHAEL J. FOX: When you asked me that question, I thought of the young actor who was auditioning to play me in the documentary, and we had him do all kinds of physical things, like slide across car hoods and all this stuff. Mostly just to torture him but also to see if he could do it. And I said to this one guy afterward, "Do the same thing, but pick your favorite song and hum in your head." And he did it. And I remember it was breathtaking, the difference. And so, I said for me, I still have the music.
I have to expose this about myself: I was that 13-year-old who went to see Back to the Future on opening weekend. It was such a wonderful movie, especially for guitar players. When you played guitar [in the film], was it hard doing that solo? Did you work with a guitar player?
It wasn't hard in that I've been a frustrated guitarist most of my life. So, I knew the fundamentals of the keys and what notes to hit and not hit. Plus, I had already recorded the track with the guitarist because I came in late. So, I was finger-syncing it to the track. [Coldplay's] Chris Martin told me that my scene in the movie influenced his guitar playing. So, what a great compliment that is.
Are you a nostalgic person? Do you return to your films?
Only if by accident. This is a famous story in our family: A few Christmases ago, we were in the living room decorating the tree. I went to the kitchen to get some cookies or something, and when I didn't come back after like 20 minutes or so, they said, "Michael, where the hell are you?" And I had stopped in front of the TV because I saw the opening scene from Back to the Future, and I hadn't watched it since 1986. So, I watched the movie. All the kids came in and watched me watch Back to the Future. Then they got bored and left. I said to Tracy — it's the first time I ever said, "You know what? I'm pretty good in this movie."
She said, "Yeah, no s---. Welcome to the admiration club." I said, "No, I never really gave myself credit for being involved in this movie." So I didn't mean I'm good like I'm a great actor. I meant I'm good like I followed; I remembered the dance steps that I needed to do, to move a great movie along.
Talk to me about how this project came to you because you could have told your story to any director.
I wasn't looking to tell anybody. I wrote the book, and I was done.
So how did the book turn into the doc?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I was reading No Time Like the Future, and you were doing an interview for the last book.
FOX: They'd done a nice big piece on me in the New York Times.
GUGGENHEIM: And it was a story that's in the book: you're shooting a Spike Lee movie in your early 50s?
FOX: No, I was asked to do a cameo.
GUGGENHEIM: A cameo. And he was in Martha's Vineyard. He flew back to do that. His family says, "Let's stay the night; we'll help you get ready in the morning." He goes, "No, no, I'm good." And the story's pretty bleak: he trips, falls, and shatters his arm, right?
GUGGENHEIM: And he can't reach the phone, and it's a disaster. They shut down production. But his writing about it was so appealing. Even in the horror of it, there was humor and a kind of unique voice. I didn't realize what a good storyteller he is. So I got his books on tape and the way he reads them; I love the sound of his voice. I love him telling me his story. And I said, "Oh look, this is a movie."
Everett Collection Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in 'Back to the Future'
Michael, you're still funny and fast in the moment, the way you've always been. I love that you include the shot of you falling down on the street. You're walking past this woman, and you say, "Oh, you knocked me out," and she laughs.
GUGGENHEIM: "You knocked me off my feet."
FOX: That's the way I think about everything: what's funny about this? No matter what the situation. But what was cool about that was that I didn't hurt myself. I mean, I feel like three months later, I broke something bad. I got on this streak of breaking stuff. But no, I liked that moment a lot. And I'm glad that it was in the movie because that is me getting rid of my feet again, making a joke, and moving on.
So many of your films are about finding a sense of purpose. But as we know from life, sometimes that purpose finds you. Do you have different ideas these days about what your purpose is?
FOX: We're often in dress rehearsal, and we don't realize it. What's interesting about the film, and I love the way [Davis] told the story, is that there's this kid going on this great adventure, and the odds being— I mean, look at my situation. Those are f---ing ridiculous odds. I mean, crazy odds. I love my parents, and I love that they allowed me to [move to Hollywood], but they really shouldn't have. They were naive. So then, to have moved through that and had it turn out to be this unqualified success, only to be 29 with a Parkinson's diagnosis — where's the ground floor for investigating that? Where's the ground floor of being 16 years old and getting in my car, and going to California? There is none. You make it up as you go along.
I saw you at the Governor's Awards, and Woody Harrelson told this story about drinking cobra blood with you, which was wonderful. But I got a sense from that anecdote that you went through a stretch where you maybe weren't being the best to yourself.
FOX: Oh God, yeah.
And that you were maybe being a daredevil and had a bit of a death wish. Is that fair to say?
FOX: Actually, death wish is over the line. I've never had a death wish. I'm not fixated on that stuff. I'm much more into life. I was into life in a dangerous way. Into life in a way that wanted all the good stuff out of life but didn't want to pay the respect that life needed to transact one's way through it.
DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock Michael J. Fox and Woody Harrelson
You called it '80s famous.
FOX: Yeah, '80s famous. Well, that was just an interesting thing somebody said. We were talking about the '80s, and they said, "Well, yeah. You were '80s famous." "Yeah, that's right. I was." And I started to think about it, and I thought it was a particular crucible that existed then that doesn't exist now. I never sat down to try to figure it out with pen and paper or anything, but it was a different time. You wanted to stand in a big old bar and lead your troops. Wanted to go crazy.
GUGGENHEIM: If it wasn't a death wish, what is [driving] 90 miles an hour in your Lamborghini doing? Because that's certainly dangerous.
FOX: That's not a death wish. I mean, I had the means with which to do anything I wanted to do. So, how do you make that list? Start out at the bottom and get up to five, and you're going, "Okay." If you had the wherewithal to write the list, then you'd write the f---ing list and do some stuff. So, I was never out to kill myself. I was never, ever, ever... it makes me kind of shutter in a way to hear you mention that.
FOX: No, no. Not in any bad way. I mean, just in a good way. It's cool that you did because it made me think about things, but I never had that. I did have this thing where you'd wake up and try to retrace your steps, where you'd been the night before. And a lot of times, to tell you the truth, it might have been somewhere dangerous. But that was it. I was famous in the '80s.
What's the status right now of the war on Parkinson's? How close are we?
FOX: One of the things I'm really excited about is, over the last 10 or 15 years, we've involved the patient community in a way that they've never been involved in before. And one of the ways is doing PPI, PPMI, which is trying to find a biomarker. If we can find a biomarker and limit the number of people that are likely to have that biomarker, then we can test and retest for it in infancy. And if we can test for it in infancy, it's over. You'll never have Parkinson's in your life. And that's the road we're going down.
Wow, that's exciting. And the material that you include about the war on Parkinson's is really exciting in the film. Was that important for you?
GUGGENHEIM: Well, it's interesting. The Fox Foundation is a gold standard in so many ways. That being said, one of the first things I said to him was, I don't want to make a Parkinson's movie.
GUGGENHEIM: When we do talk about it, it's more about [Michael] becoming a full person. I'm not shying away from Parkinson's, but reading his books, I was like, "Oh, he's got something that I want." He says, "Life threw me this curve ball, and it's bringing me down." I watch how Michael's dealt with that, and that's given me a path forward. It could be Parkinson's, it could be cancer, it could be work, it could be anything. But that's the appeal to me; it's a universal story. The pitch was: What happens when an incurable optimist confronts an incurable disease? Your line that you said the other night was pretty brilliant.
FOX: I can't remember.
Was it "gratitude feeds optimism"?
GUGGENHEIM: Gratitude makes optimism sustainable. Did you write that line?
FOX: It somehow came in my head. Everyone asks me, "How can you be optimistic?" I can be optimistic as long as I'm grateful. And I can be grateful if I really think about it because I wouldn't have had the rest of my life if it weren't for so many things that Tracy, chief among them, came in and intervened in. And it sounds hokey, but to this day, if I can find one little thing to be grateful for, I can be optimistic about it.
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